Virtual reality has been touted as the perfect medium for everything from teaching prisoners how to live outside of jail, correcting vision problems, and making hyper-realistic games. With newspapers stuffed with articles about how useful the technology will be for our everyday lives, few have focused on how VR can offer a bold, new, and inventive vehicle for a format with less immediate use-value—visual art.
The National Film Board or Canada (NFB) is one of the first to recognize the medium’s potential for transforming 2D drawings. While many VR experiences fashion worlds built with 3D modelling, the NFB commissioned Montreal-based artist Paloma Dawkins to translate her on-paper creations into a colourful and absurdist world for the HTC Vive headset.
Her conception, named the Museum of Symmetry, offers one of the most vibrant art-based experiences in the Steam and Viveport stores. Taking viewers on a journey from jumping on billowing clouds to riding stingrays through portals of underwater light, Dawkins has built a fantastical romp that contrasts the limits of reality and believability in VR.
“The idea was that we wanted to create these five different rooms,” she tells the Georgia Straight at SIGGRAPH convention, an enormous event that focuses on computer graphics and immersive technology. “Each room was based on the elements, a geometric shape, a colour, and an emotion. The journey goes through the Platonic solids. The first part starts as a triangle, and then becomes a diamond, a cube, an icosahedron, and then a dodecahedron. Each one has its own characteristics. Aristotle assigned each shape a feeling—so the cube, for instance, is more earthy and stable and balanced. Its emotional resonance is with the colour green, so the part of the experience associated with the cube is about friendship, love, and nurturing. We wanted to make a story through these shapes.”
VR, Dakwins swiftly found out, poses a number of challenges to creators. A sticking point for many is that viewers have the chance to look wherever they like in their environment, causing them to focus away from where directors are orchestrating a scene. Rather than fight to direct a user’s eye, Dawkins chose to embrace the freedom of the medium.
“I don’t want to guide the player,” she says. “I don’t want to force you to look somewhere. A lot of games are like, ‘Here’s a glowing ball, look over here’. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make it a sculptural experience—you get as much of the story as you want to, and try to figure out what’s going on. I feel like there’s so much more reality in that. You’re not going to be told what’s going on all the time in real life. You just have to grab what’s going on and figure it out for yourself.
“There’s a lot of layers,” she continues. “Something that I accounted for is that for a lot of people who play it, it’s probably going to be their first VR game, and they’re going to be overwhelmed right off the bat. I didn’t want to have to force a bunch of story down your throat while you are just trying to understand where you are. It’s something that we made sure of, that the game worked from simple, intuitive movements.”
Screened in countries including Germany and France as well as Canada, the success of the Museum of Symmetry is made all the more remarkable because of its length. Typically VR experiences last between three to five minutes, a duration that allows many people at a virtual reality showcase to try on the headset. Games, however, are expected to offer hours or days of playtime. Clocking in at the unusual time of 17 minutes, the Museum of Symmetry tackles preconceived notions of how VR should operate.
“It’s been a really weird grey spot,” she says. “Some festivals are put off by it because it’s too long, because of lineups. Probably only 50 people a day can play it. But then you can’t really charge a gamer to play that, because it’s just 20 minutes. Working with the NFB inspired me to be able to do have a more ambitious project. Because if you’re trying to make a profit, it wouldn’t work. The NFB creates things for people experimenting, and just going there. It really freed my creative problem solving.”
Museum of Symmetry is now available for HTC Vive on Viveport and Steam.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays